Image Credit: The Deep, by Shoshanah Dubiner

Life in the Cosmos: Micro and Macro

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For me, it always begins with love. Love of a form, a particular shape. Sometimes it’s love at first sight. My husband, the writer Craig Comstock, has called me a morphophiliac, a lover of form, or a psyche-morphographer, someone who depicts the psyche in the language of natural form.

Some people see me as a colorist; others wonder whether I was a science major in college. It is true that I once worked in a science museum as an exhibit designer and that I have read many books on science, those written for nonscientists by outstanding science writers; but I do not have the patience to perform modern scientific research, nor to master math and chemistry, or to measure things and interact with modern laboratory equipment. I did enroll in a cell biology course in 2007 at Southern Oregon University, and ever since, my interest has primarily been in the world of the tiny, the forms of the microscopic. And yes, I do have and enjoy looking through my own microscope. 

The teeming, abundant, astonishing world of organic forms is my language. Paintings are my medium.

ODE TO THE EUKARYOTE


The first painting to come out of my cell biology class was Ode to the Eukaryote. I wanted to teach myself the structure of the eukaryotic cell by copying the basic diagram from my textbook. What I saw enclosed within the double-layered plasma membrane were the components of the eukaryotic cell: first and foremost, the nucleus, but also the Golgi apparatus, mitochondria, filaments, and other cell components that organize the structure and activities of the cell. While painting, my cell membrane became a metaphorical wall enclosing a miniature garden, a place for living creatures like birds, fish, and lizards. The word paradise, in fact, comes from the Greek paradeisos, or “Persian-style walled garden.” Paradise has also come to mean a place of supreme beauty or surpassing bliss, the Garden of Eden, heaven on Earth. 

But what happens outside the walled garden? Attracted to all the pleated structures within the eukaryotic cell—like the endoplasmic reticulum, which wraps around the nucleus—I placed my cell on a pleated green leaf. Beyond this green leaf lies dark, pleated space. Einstein proved that space-time is curved. Why not pleated? This cell garden is a metaphorical paradise, here to delight the eye and mind.

THE DEEP

The Deep is a poetic vision of the connection between the sun and life on Earth. It depicts the vision of the Russian geochemist and mineralogist Vladimir Ivanovich Vernadsky (1863–1945), who saw living matter as the greatest of all geological forces. Life is a global phenomenon in which the sun’s energy (photons streaming to Earth) is transformed by photosynthesizing red and green bacteria, algae, and plants into a bright “green fire.” Water, seen in lakes and ponds on the surface and in vast reservoirs below, is essential for life on Earth. The Deep conflates deep space and deep oceans in one continuum, where giant dragonlike, benthic, bioluminescent siphonophores swim among the stars. This magical mixing up of elements at different scales, this creation of chimeras within The Deep, makes for surprise and wonderment.

BLUE COCOON


My paintings often navigate that amazing and alluring boundary zone where great beauty, danger, and mystery meet, where something thrilling and energizing happens. Blue Cocoon was inspired by two photographs taken at the Jan Lab at University of California San Francisco: one shows undifferentiated cells in a fruit fly embryo; the other, taken ten hours later, shows a fully formed fruit fly nervous system.

The neurobiologists Yuh-Nung Jan and Lily Jan wrote: “The birth of the nervous system remains one of the fundamental mysteries of biology.” How do neurons arise from undifferentiated cells? How do they differentiate into individual shapes and identities? And how do they organize themselves into nervous system pathways that spread throughout an organism? My painting is not a scientific answer to those questions but a contemplation of the awesome and complex process by which forms arise in living organisms. 

The painting began with the image of a small cocoon or womb containing undifferentiated cells; a system of interconnected cocoons followed, one representing the fully formed nervous system of the fruit fly, another showing the nervous system of imagined reptiles. The cycle of life and death is displayed inside cocoons: where humans mate, egg meets sperm, a baby waits in the womb, and finally, a human skeleton curled in a fetal position (the same position in which some ancient cultures bury their dead). All the living creatures are contained in a still-larger blue cocoon or womb. Outside of it, like the figure of Yama in Tibetan Buddhist art, is the gaping mouth of Death, holding life in its giant claws. Everything in the blue cocoon will eventually fall away, disintegrate, become elements of new life-forms and arise again.

SISTER SKY


The Sister Sky painting is an allegory: the ancient Egyptian goddess of the sky, Nut, forms a protective arch over the seventeenth-century woman astronomer who is gazing at Saturn through an early telescope. She is Galileo’s daughter, the Catholic nun Suor Celeste, whose name in Italian means “sister sky.” On the shore is an old and still-living tree that was once cut down by humans; a small new branch with four green leaves tells us the tree is still alive, a sign of hope for our planet Earth. Beyond the Milky Way, a million miles from Earth, are the gold-coated hexagonal mirrors of theJames Webb Space Telescope (JWST), launched in 2021. With its never-existed-before powers of imaging, the JWST will help us imagine what the universe looked like near the time of its birth. The swans are in honor of Natalie Batalha, professor of astronomy and astrophysics at University of California Santa Cruz, my friend with whom I share a megalove of swans.

ENDOSYMBIOSIS

Endosymbiosis is a homage to the microbiologist Lynn Margulis. Her book What Is Life?, written with her son Dorion Sagan, shaped my understanding of life on Earth. Their clear and often poetically charged writing told a story of cooperation, complexity, and dazzling beauty. Margulis’s endosymbiotic theory posited that evolution at a cellular level occurs primarily through symbiosis rather than random mutation. This means that creatures who might otherwise eat (and thus kill) each other end up living one inside the other, as a result creating more complex organisms and cooperating to the advantage of both organisms. In biological terms, Margulis showed that eukaryotic cells (cells with a nucleus, like ours) developed as a merger of less complex cells (prokaryotes, such as bacteria). One of the best-known mergers resulted in mitochondria becoming the energy providers of our eukaryotic cells.

Some of the main players of the endosymbiosis drama as described by Margulis are in my painting. In the upper portion, ancient snakelike bacteria, spirochetes, are attaching themselves to other single-celled organisms, becoming the tail or undulipodium (waving foot) providing locomotion for the host cell. At the very top of the painting are portions of three eukaryotic cells: the two nuclei on the right are filled with red DNA strands; the one on the left is in the process of dividing to form two new daughter cells. In the lower half of the painting, modern single-celled protozoa use their hairlike cilia to swim and create swirling vortices that pull in their prey. Tiny rod-shaped blue and purple bacteria fill the rest of the dark viscous element. The blue snakelike shape represents the life force, always moving, pulsing with wavelike energy. 

A quote from the 2000 edition of What Is Life? inspired and sparked many of my recent paintings:

So, what is life? Life is planetary exuberance, a solar phenomenon. It is the astronomically local transmutation of Earth’s air, water, and sun into cells. . . . Life is the single expanding organization connected through Darwinian time to the first bacteria and . . . to all citizens of the biosphere . . . It is matter gone wild, capable of choosing its own direction in order to forestall the inevitable moment of thermodynamic equilibrium—death.

Since being displayed at the memorial celebration for Lynn Margulis in 2012, Endosymbiosis has been published in Donna Haraway’s groundbreaking work Staying with the Trouble (2016)and was transformed into a video animation for the exhibit Science Friction at the Center for Contemporary Culture in Barcelona (2021) and the Azkuna Zentroa in Bilbao, Spain (2022). It became the cover art for the French edition of Microcosmos (Editions Wildproject, 2022). In 2023, after being on loan at the University of California Santa Cruz’s Norris Center for Natural History, it is now in the collection of Dorion Sagan.

PROTOCELL TRIPTYCH
The Protocell Triptych, a set of three pastel paintings, was created in collaboration with the scientist David Deamer, a leading expert on the origins of life on Earth.

PROMISE

Promise depicts the first steps on the evolutionary path toward primitive life: the spontaneous self-assembly in which lipid molecules become organized into spherical membranous compartments containing polymers resembling nucleic acids. Trillions of protocells are generated from just a few milligrams of lipid. Each protocell is like a microscopic experiment in which inanimate matter finds ways to become animate. If you were to cut open the living protocells, you would be looking at inanimate molecules made of atoms born more than 4.5 billion years ago in exploding and colliding stars. As Carl Sagan said, “We’re made of star stuff.”

EMERGENCE

In Emergence, warm volcanic pools of water undergo continuous cycles of evaporation and hydration. During hydration, bilayer sheets of lipid molecules self-assemble into a gel and then into those heavenly forms called spheres—distant cousins to round planets and stars, whose shape is formed by gravity. In the volcanic pools, these microscopic spheres, called protocells—formed by the interaction of the lipids with water—are able to absorb minerals and organic compounds already present in the warm water. As some of the organic compounds link together into polymers, known as proteins and nucleic acids, they have the potential to function as catalysts, to grow, and even to reproduce. Once they can grow and reproduce, they are perhaps a nanosecond away from becoming living cells. Exactly when they become “alive” is still a debatable mystery.

LIFE

Finally, illustrated in the painting Life, populations of protocells become alive once they evolve the ability to capture energy and nutrients from the environment, and then begin to grow and reproduce. But long before this transition, the self-assembly of lipids into spherical compartments and tubules provides a structural foundation for the emergence of cellular life. Here, the tubules are seen as metaphorical cornucopias overflowing with a few of Earth’s endless living species of bacteria, archaea, protists, algae, jellyfish, and butterflies.

*******

Living organisms are ever-changing, fluid, and charged with energy. The human’s animal body moves along the earth, feeling gravity’s pull, sensing its own limited containment, while the human mind and heart reach for the stars. As an artist living in a culture of science, I often wonder: What is my role? What value can my work add to the public discourse? My intention is not to help explain the science but primarily to convey the sense of awe that both artists and scientists feel at the great beauty of Nature on our home planet Earth and in the Cosmos.

  • Shoshanah Dubiner

    Artist, designer and educator, Shoshanah Dubiner grew up in San Francisco during that city’s Renaissance. In high school she met her art teacher and mentor, Jane Kastner, Educational Curator at the SF Legion of Honor in San Francisco. Embarking on her post-secondary education, Dubiner eventually earned degrees in Comparative Literature at the University of California Berkeley and Harvard, then in Theatre Design at Brandeis University.

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